Judging the Past

I was chatting with a university alumni group that applauded the removal of various statues and was hard-pressed to find a single American Founder worth preserving. I asked what they supposed future generations would think of them, to which one alumnus replied (expressing the mood of the group) she hoped to be judged virtuous.

When I suggested that future generations were likely to object—for example—to our using products of convenience manufactured by slave labor, they were at a loss. Perhaps they were unaware that their fancy iPhones are built by workers who can’t afford to leave the factory city, who sleep in the still-warm bunks vacated by the night shift, and who toil in buildings ringed with nets to catch falling bodies. (“It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying,” to quote one ex-employee.) 

But, these facts duly revealed, the alumni were intent only on proving that this so-called slave labor was by no means analogous to or as bad as the sort of slavery they were enraged about. One woman asked me if Chinese slave laborers were ripped away from their families, denied rights, routinely humiliated, or even killed. When I replied that they were (organ harvesting is an ongoing and profitable operation in select labor camps) she replied that she had no desire to get into a “slave Olympics” with me and wasn’t interested in making comparisons to see which slaves had a harder life. 

Which is odd, given that that is precisely what she’d just asked me to do.

Expressing outrage over the behavior of men who lived 150 years ago is easy: The question has already been adjudicated by Americans who were willing to fight an actual war over it. Giving up your iPhone is harder—it involves real inconvenience.

If you poll any group of progressives, they will of course deny feeling any moral superiority. But it is their emotional mainspring: Each leftist believes himself to be the height of moral perfection. His entire philosophy is contained in that nugget: “future generations will judge me virtuous.” It is the essence of leftist thinking, and the essence of leftist lack of imagination, to believe that future generations will find him virtuous even though he can’t think of any virtuous people from earlier times. It has never occurred to him that someday a new generation of progressives will arrive, with new moral refinements, and new objections to the past.

A single example: Glenda Jackson, British actress turned ultra-left Labour member of Parliament was, in her prime, as progressive as it was possible to be in politics. And yet in one of her movies from the 1980s, she makes fun of a character for being gay. Of course, this was a tasteless amusement of Hollywood for decades. Some day, if it hasn’t already happened, Jackson’s moral malfeasance will be discovered, and any plaques or programs honoring her other progressive achievements will have to be removed or renamed.

But progressives are touchingly certain that this will never happen to them. Picture the Left as sitting on an endlessly long branch, each generation busily sawing off the section on which their elders are perched, blissfully unaware that the younger generation is sitting behind them about to get busy doing the same thing. 

This is why leftists never tire of retrying the same experiments. To the Left, there is no history, just a freshly sawn stump where the contaminated and horrible past used to be. Today’s progressive who believes himself to be the pinnacle of evolution is identical to the progressive of the Maoist cultural revolution, the Russian revolution, the French revolution, and so on. He is the young man (or woman) sitting on the branch with the gleaming sawblade in his hand, proud to have separated himself from those who are unworthy of being remembered; he is a child, with childlike certainty in his absolute rightness, with a child’s lack of awareness of his own limitations. The face of the Left is young, clean, fresh, merciless. It is brutally unforgiving and destined itself to be brutally unforgiven. It is the curse of the Left (and the blessing of the Right) to be judged by the future as they themselves judge the past. 

And this is why a rioting statue-smasher is equally happy to pull down Frederick Douglass or Hans Christian Heg or Robert E. Lee: They are all the past, all tainted. But think how terrifying it would be to a contemporary leftist to realize that a future generation may not bother to make any distinction between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

It is usually a mistake to judge a man except by his contemporaries. The Bible introduces Noah to us as a man “righteous in his own time.” Would he have appeared righteous a few hundred or thousand years later? Maybe. That would be nice, but is more than we can reasonably demand. Being a good man in your own day is hard enough—in Noah’s case, he was the only one on the planet.

The past is more than a guide to the present: it is a yardstick of human progress. But if each generation dumps the previous one into the garbage bin, there can be no measurement—no “milestones in the hard march of man,”—nothing but perpetual struggle, an endless revolution or civil war. This is precisely what today’s Left wants, not realizing that it has been tried before, again and again. So often, in fact, that it never stopped. 

We should look back not with contempt, but with a certain pride in how very far we have come, and a certain humility in how very far we have yet to go.

About Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is a writer and music critic living in New York.

Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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